By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Last Sunday night there was a collective scream coming from outside of the Alaska Anchorage locker room after their 4-3 comeback win over Colorado College. It was a good scream- but then again, it could have also been a loud exhale and a strong sigh of relief coming from new head coach Matt Curley. Maybe it was both…
The win was Curley’s first as a D-I head coach and the Seawolves first win as a program since last February. More importantly, it was the first stride in a series of anticipated break-ways from Anchorage, or should we say, break-outs, under the Curley regime. After coming to the WCHA after stints as an assistant coach in the USHL, for the USA Development team, Bentley College and, most-recently, head coach duties for the EC Red Bull Saltzburg Junior team (Saltzburg, Austria); Curley was named the sixth head coach in the history of UAA’s program in April of 2018. Goal number one; and maybe the only goal for Curley early on, was to change the hockey culture at UAA. After finishing last in the conference last season with a record of 4-26-4 overall, Alaska Anchorage’s second-worst record in the history of their program, Curley was asked to bring two things to Anchorage right off the bat- work ethic and enthusiasm. The first-year head coach wanted to win, yes, but more than that, he wanted his Seawolves to compete with the understanding that by playing the game with ferocious tenacity, the wins were going to come, it was just a matter of when. As it turned out, it took two games.
“We want to compete on the ice and off the ice, Friday and Saturday nights, no matter what the results are going to be. My goal is to have coaches from our league and other conferences tell me after a weekend series that you guys have a hell of a compete level and you made us earn everything we got. For us that is going to be a hallmark of ours,” stated Curley. “You can talk about being the best when it comes to puck possession and all of that, but I also believe you have to play to your strengths and you have to be realistic with who you are; with what you are. I do believe that what we have are guys who love to compete and want to compete. With that hopefully comes some success and we can find ways to win some games and from there, we can start moving forward as a program.”
True, the sample size consists of only two games, but within those two battles the Curley method has already started to show its face. Consider this….the UAA season didn’t start off with bells and whistles. Last Saturday, in their first game of the season against Colorado College, the CC Tigers rolled over the Seawolves, 10-2. It was Alaska Anchorage’s worst loss since November 13th, 2014, when they fell to Ferris State 10-2. Most agree that one of the areas of their game that have plagued the Seawolves over the last several years was in the area of bouncing back after a lopsided loss. Bad games happen throughout the year, but one of the differences between contenders and pretenders lies with how that team responds after the smoke finally clears. Heading into this season, Alaska Anchorage had not excelled in that category.
Using six goals allowed as the water mark, last season alone, UAA allowed six goals or more in a game five times and each time they lost after relinquishing six or more tallies, the following night against the same team, the Seawolves lost. Making it even more devastating is the fact that each time they lost in game two of the weekend series, they lost that game by one goal. As a matter of fact, last Saturday’s win over CC marked the first time since the 2013-14 season that UAA allowed six or more goals one night and won the next time they took the ice. It may not seem like much on the surface, but team resiliency (or lack thereof) was one of the areas Curley identified early as an area of concern. Just 35 years old, the former Clarkson D-man sees his rise to the corner office in Anchorage as unconventional and cites his determination and “never give up” attitude as one of the reasons why he now finds himself behind the Seawolf bench. That mindset is now shared by 28 of his players.
“This is probably the most positive we have been going into a season in terms of our overall body of work and what we are aiming towards. Having new leadership come in; a new coaching staff brings a fresh perspective on the game of hockey and that’s good for a lot of our guys, especially for players who have been a part of a program for a while who hasn’t done as well the past couple of years. It feels as close to a winning culture as we have had here since I have been here,” remarked Nathan Renouf, a junior forward for the Seawolves. “The one thing we have struggled with the last couple of years was that it seemed like the minute we faced some adversity, or the minute something went wrong, people would turn on each other. I haven’t seen that this year so far. We still need to see how things shake out after we get deep into the season, but it’s definitely been different in terms of support for each other as well as the competition aspect of things being raised on the ice.”
“When things haven’t gone your way and you’ve had a couple years where you have struggled, it’s easy to get down but I don’t sense that at all; if anything I have seen the opposite. It’s definitely a room full of guys who all want to prove everyone wrong. No one wants to sit there and say we are at the bottom. Everyone wants to build and be a part of turning a program around,” added Matt Bruneteau, UAA assistant coach. “I think we need guys that are the right type of character and I think that things will start building from where we are at now to a better position at some point. It’s not going to happen with the wrong people. If they have bad attitudes coming in, if they are going to mope around, we are going to stay where we’re at. We want character guys who want to change this thing. The players in that locker room want to turn it around. I think that’s probably the most important thing we are looking for as we try to build this thing and eventually move up in the standings.”
Bruneteau knows all about building things. After playing college hockey for Lake Superior State, the Omaha, Neb. native eventually got into coaching and landed a job with Stevenson University and was on the coaching staff when the Mustangs started their men’s hockey program for the 2016-17 season. Working behind the bench for the budding D-III program out of Maryland, in just two seasons, Stevenson became a force to be reckoned with and Bruneteau was a part of all of it. Now focused on bringing the same type of results to Anchorage, it’s an experience he shares often with his new group of players. The model works. He knows it. Matt Curley knows it. The Seawolves are starting to believe in it.
“When I started, no one knew what the program was and three years later, kids started to want to come and play at the school,” mentioned Bruneteau, when asked about his experience at Stevenson. “Here, I kind of look at it the same way as far as recruiting and coaching. You can’t get down. We are going to go through bad stretches and it’s just about trying to get the most out of the guys and to keep improving even when times seem a little dark.”
“Everything starts with leadership and good leadership cannot be understated; it cannot be overvalued. It is everything,” continued Curley. “I feel really good about some of the guys who are going to help lead that charge. It’s going to be more of a collective effort this year. Guys like Nils Rygaard, Nolan Nicholas, Eric Sinclair; I could keep going. A big part of that leadership is going to come from our entire senior class and from guys like Nicolas Erb-Eckholm, Jeremiah Luedtke, and Alec Butcher. They are guys who have been here for a while and have also come from other situations or programs in the past that have been successful so they know what it takes. This team wants to show people that they are wrong and we are better than we are perceived, and I think the guys have all rallied around that idea. Hopefully our older guys will lead the way and the younger guys will follow suit, and that will start a consistent cycle that will carry us into the future.”
“We are ecstatic with what he’s done with the program so far and with how he has handled everyone. He’s tough but he’s fair. He drives us really hard and we are excited to see how he responds when negative things happen,” added Renouf; referring to the impact Curley has had on the program since taking over. “The first couple of weeks of practice has been high intensity and very competitive and that’s been good for the culture around the rink. It’s a fresh start and everyone is happy to have it.”
Now 1-1, practice is something the Seawolves will see a lot of over the next two weeks. UAA’s next series will be October 26th- 27th against Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich. Anchorage then returns home to face Bemidji State and Bowling Green on back to back weekends at Sullivan Arena in early November.